Losing both legs couldn't stop march to doctorate

By Ashlee Larrison
GCU News Bureau

It has been 10 years since Eric Gabriel made the life-changing decision to allow doctors to amputate his right leg and five years since he enrolled in the doctoral program at Grand Canyon University. On April 26, he finally will make it to the finish line of his doctoral program, another 13 surgeries (his lifetime total is more than 50) and another amputation (his left leg) later.

Eric Gabriel had a prosthetic leg to help him get around after his first amputation.

Gabriel, 61, never missed an assignment despite frequent hospital trips. There was a time in November when he missed a deadline by a day, but only because he had forgotten to press send on his computer before having his left leg removed.

Gabriel called his counselor in a panic, and she was shocked he was even worrying about an assignment in the midst of recovering from such a major operation.

“I said, ‘Well, I wound up in the hospital, they just cut my leg off yesterday,’ and I went on, and she goes, ‘Wait a second, back up, you did what?’”

A disability can leave some people feeling helpless and at times depressed about their new life. But Gabriel wants others with disabilities to know they still can thrive despite their struggles.

“The one motivational thing that I had was to show people, especially with amputation, that your life’s not over,” Gabriel said. “I was determined to show people that if you put your mind to it, there are other things than just losing a limb or having a disability, and you could possibly build on your experience from that.”

Eric Gabriel at the Paralympic training facility in Oklahoma City.

When he was 36, mounting injuries forced Gabriel to retire from the traveling softball team he had played on for 16 years. That led to dozens of operations, including knee replacements, but an infection in one of his artificial knees forced the amputation of his right leg when he was 51. 

Doctors had attempted to save the leg by installing a rod that attached from his hip to his ankle, leaving his leg permanently extended. But after struggling for months to fit inside cars and live his life the way he wanted, Gabriel decided to go ahead with the amputation. He quickly adjusted to having a prosthetic leg and got back to his athletic roots.

“I thought, ‘Well, the thing I knew best was athletics,’ and that’s why the thing I found I could do with one leg was indoor rowing.”

Eventually, Gabriel said, "A light bulb went off in my head," and he decided to return to school to show both himself and others what a person can achieve despite a disability.

He told himself, “Eric, Eric, you’re killing yourself, and because you’re getting older, your body’s breaking down and that’s kind of a natural way of life here. But you talk about doing it and showing people, well, then do it with your head. Do it academically.’”

He got along fine on one leg until last fall, when a buildup of fluid, called lymphedema, formed in his left leg. He had fevers as high as 102 degrees for several days before he was rushed to the hospital. When he arrived, he knew, before the doctors could even get the words out, that he would have to lose his other leg.

At first, Gabriel would need the help of firefighters and EMS technicians to get him back and forth to doctor appointments after his second amputation. A wheelchair and lift solved that challenge.

“I had a temperature of 102 on Monday and by Friday they took my leg off. It happened that fast,” he said.

After arriving home, Gabriel thought he would have the same limitations he had after his first amputation, but he was mistaken -- he was far more limited. Then some old friends from high school came together on Facebook to raise money to purchase a new wheelchair and lift for Gabriel, enabling him to leave his house whenever he wanted.

“The world is a lot different now,” Gabriel said. “For three months I couldn’t get out of my own house to go to the doctors. The fire department would have to come put me on a gurney just to go down four steps to get out of my house.

“There’s certain things that you take so much for granted, but I look at the four little steps there that were preventing me from going outside and that kind of blew my mind during that time. Now I have a nice wheelchair lift that can get me down to ground level, and thank God for that.”

Despite what was going on with his health, Gabriel always had his schoolwork to keep him busy. He and his wife, Melissa, worked out a system where she would always be able to bring him his laptop while he was in the hospital. He never fell behind.

Eric Gabriel and his wife, Melissa, celebrate after he won the silver medal at the World Indoor Rowing Championships.

That's an example of another facet to Gabriel's message: He didn’t do it alone.

“I was laid up in the hospital for weeks and weeks, I was laid up at home for weeks and months at a time," he said. "If I didn’t have GCU and my schoolwork to do, I would have gone crazy. You know I don’t even know where I would be today,” Gabriel said.

Coming to GCU to receive his Doctor of Education in Organizational Leadership degree is more challenging than just getting out of his North Carolina home. He found an airline that provides special wheelchair-accessible bathrooms to help make his flight a little more comfortable.

“For me it’s going to be like a homecoming,” he said.

Contact Ashlee Larrison at (602) 639-8488 or [email protected]


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